February 22nd 2012

Review: 8/10 Can of Whoop Ass




            Chronicle is not your typical “super power” movie.  For one thing, the characters who gain super powers do not live in a fictional world of similarly-abled people.  Rather, they exist in an insular world of normality.  Though the film is ostensibly set in Seattle, the small-town feel of the high-school and surrounding town could be stand in for most of America.  The onscreen world is plausible enough, which is interesting coupled with the gross implausibility of the supernatural events that occur within it.  Still, this movie doesn’t mask its intentions: the super powers are garnered early on and the movie is more about dealing with the powers after the fact than the mystery of where the powers came from.  There is no “origin story” as there might be in a comic book adaptation.  Chronicle is as true a movie one could make about something as untrue as its premise sets out to be.

            The film circles around three teenage boys who gain telekinetic powers from a strange hole in the ground.  While the hole in the ground may cause some to scoff, the source of the telekinesis is barely important.  What’s important is how each boy reacts to the newly-acquired mind control abilities.  Student council president hopeful Steve (played by Wallace from The Wire, whose real name is Michael Jordan!), is a popular jock who aspires to be a politician when he grows up.  Matt (played by Alex Russell), inexplicably quoting everyone from Schopenhauer to Plato, is the sensitive one looking out for his cousin Andrew (played by Dane Dehaan, with the baggiest eyes in showbiz), the reclusive loner beset with an abusive, alcoholic father and a dying mother.  The boys learn that their powers get “stronger” the more they use them and along the way they learn to fly.  But it is soon obvious that none of the boys view the powers the same: Steve sees it as another means of attracting attention, Matt sees it as something to be responsible about, and Andrew sees it as a means of retaliation against the world that has done him wrong.  In effect, the film presents the idea that everything is an extension of self, even considering something as ridiculous as mind control.  Steve already wanted attention, Matt already wanted to be responsible, and Andrew already wanted his revenge – long before they went down that supernatural hole in the ground.

            The entire film is presented in the style of “found footage”.  That is, every scene is shot from a camera in the film-world, not by some disembodied director filming a movie.  While this style can be overbearing at times, as the story must go out of its way to explain how each scene is being filmed, Chronicle is clever enough to use that potential downfall as an outlet of creativity.  Most of the film is shot from Andrew’s personal camera, which starts out in his hands, but slowly drifts backwards to more traditional film angles as Andrew learns how to hold the camera with his mind.  The effect is a strange sense of awareness that Andrew is controlling our perspective.  In an intimate moment of male teenage bonding, Matt admits that the day they learned to fly was the best day of his life.  Steve and Andrew both agree.  It is a touching admission from three boys so used to the bravado of modern adolescence, but it is particularly insightful to perceive the scene from a camera floating near the ceiling, stripping the characters into shapes as raw as the words they speak.  In addition, the transitions between scenes are controlled by whether the camera is on or off, which the film utilizes to keep scenes short and to the point (keeping the entire runtime under 90 minutes).  Near the end of Chronicle, the “real footage” premise is extended to the extreme, presenting an aerial chase scene from all types of digital perspectives: helicopters, police cars, cell phones, security cameras, etc.

            Most importantly, the “constant filming” technique is an adequate analogy for how teenagers feel about their lives.  Every adolescent feels an intense need to fit in, which makes their life just a shallow performance.  Andrew’s filming makes people uncomfortable, but only as uncomfortable as they already feel.  Being filmed does not change your life, it exposes it.  Similarly, the super powers do not change the boys; they just provide an outlet for their pre-existing desires.  The wonder of the powers is offset by the gripping reality of the character’s lives.  Each boy responds appropriately to the powers, which is to say, they respond the only way they know how.  Andrew’s eventual outburst is just an exaggeration of the outburst he would have had anyway, minus the ability to fly and destroy buildings.  The other little nuggets of expression hold true as well.  A guy like Steve would see the powers as useful for nothing more than fun and Youtube parlor tricks.  A guy like Andrew, so new to getting attention, would use it to cheat at beer pong in an effort to impress a girl with pink hair.  The end result is nightmarish wish fulfillment, in which supernatural wonder is squandered in the limitations of personality.  Chronicle correctly…chronicles…the angst-ridden American teenager and the crisis of identity.  Andrew, with his detached sentiment and the background music of his sick mother playing in his head like an anthem of misery, is a ticking time bomb.  Powers from God, or aliens, or beyond – cannot save him.  His failure is inescapable because it is the most devastating kind of failure: a social one.

            For a movie so taught and straightforward, there were still opportunities for improvement.  The hole in the ground is a small issue, but an issue nonetheless.  This isn’t Men in Black, with alien spacecraft burrowing into the surface of the earth – figure something else out.  Likewise, the administration of the powers is annoyingly cliché.  Why does every mind controller exert their power with that strained twitch of the neck?  Ever since Scanners, this seems to be the only way to do it.  The hand motions don’t help either, seeming straight out of Star Wars and “the force” that flows from the fingers.  If you could control things with your mind, would there really be any obvious exertion at all?  When I think really hard, I don’t think I look that different from when I’m not thinking that hard.  That should be proof enough that if mind control existed, it wouldn’t require those strenuous, nosebleed-inducing stare downs.  Also, while the film got most of the setting right, the “high school parties” looked like swank celebrity celebrations.  A supposed impromptu barn party comes equipped with professional speaker systems and lavish decorations and later, a post-talent show get together (because those are always the most outrageous) is held at a mega-millionaire’s party pad.  This can be forgiven though, as no movie will ever capture high school parties like Dazed and Confused did, and no one should ever try (I'm looking at you Project X).

            In the end, Chronicle is a good movie because it isn’t really about teenagers with supernatural powers – it’s just about teenagers.  Some are better off than others, but all are looking to find their way in the world.  And while the premise of the movie takes us to impossible extremes, the exaggeration of the mind control still hammers home the idea that self-perception is ultimately what defines us.  You cannot escape yourself or your past, regardless of what fortune befalls you.